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The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs

Greil Marcus

(Yale University Press; US: Sep 2014)

Greil Marcus remains one of America’s greatest poets. Forget that he doesn’t work in that idiom and that he has built a career and a series of books on what was once one of the lowest forms of entertainment. (And may still be, no matter how much dear ol’ Dad plunks down on Macca tickets, no matter how many times Gran has seen Dylan do his thing.)


Like Philip Roth before him, our Marcus approaches 70 with some of his sharpest, most focused writing. Vocabulary and syntax that encompass the worlds and volumes of worlds like Walt Whitman and William Faulkner; he can bite like Dorothy Parker, punch like Nelson Algren, and sing like those good ol’ psalms.


But there he is, a poet. He makes spectacular associative leaps, is long on metaphor and imagination, imagining what might have been as convincingly as he reports on what has happened. He could convince us that Little Richard believed his buttocks were made of glass and they would shatter if he sat too quickly or that Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf would have made better founding fathers than Jefferson and any of his pals. (Well, that might not take that much convincing,  come to think of it.)


Indeed, Marcus’ writing here is as intoxicating as ever, as he eschews the standard chronology of rock ‘n’ roll, avoids bathing in the waters that buoy the machinery of the music industry, and instead wraps himself in the viscera of this material. It’s not about the notes, you see, but about destroyed neighborhoods and unrealized dreams; it’s not about recouping costs but about the beauty that men create living on and on after them, the good being interred in their bones and the DNA of tens or tens of millions who have slaked their thirst for meaning on deep cuts or ephemeral pop songs.


Hell, if Marcus wants to imagine a hilarious and poignant future for Robert Johnson (more mysterious here than ever) he can do that, and we will follow him because we get the joke and understand why he and Jimi and Janis and Cobain and all the others had to die for our record collections. He gets that there is no straight story, not in history and certainly not in rock ‘n’ roll. The stories of this century will be corrupted and perverted by the next as surely as the shabby refuse of the last one has gone and gotten itself an institution in the heartland that legitimizes what maybe should never have been legitimized.


This is not the Time Life version of popular music that is not sold in stores. You can buy it there, but you can also focus hard and realize that the answers to these questions come from within your most microscopic self. Or your rock ‘n’ roll homunculus. Just let your conscience be your guide.


The biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll are all here, of course. Most of them are rattled off in the early pages as our beloved author makes way for the real parade, the parade of myth and disappointment that follows, the stream of cover versions, alcoholic deaths, subpar superstars and geniuses who amounted to little more than being nobodies.


That rock music is technically less than a century old doesn’t matter, in the world we find ourselves part of in these pages it might as well date to the prehistoric. And of course it does. Those beats and tempos are based on the pulsing of our hearts and melodies and chords and rhythms can only express what’s inside us, no matter how many mutations we attempt to push them through.


Is this Marcus’ finest hour? Hard to say. Like the aforementioned Roth, the man has enough distinct eras in his body of work that one can just as easily pick his best from each of those or debate ad infinitum which is the best of the best from those times. We’ll leave that for time to decide. For now, this poem (er, collection of essays; er, narrative) is without a doubt the best reading you’ll do this year and the some of the best music-related reading you’ll do in this lifetime.


When you want to introduce your children to the classics, make sure you include at least one work by Greil Marcus on that list. 


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Above: Electric guitar with lightning image from Shutterstock.com.

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Jedd Beaudoin is an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He holds an MFA in creative writing (fiction) from Wichita State University and hosts Strange Currency six nights week for Wichita Public Radio. His writing has appeared in No Depression and The Crab Orchard Review as well as at websites such as Ytsejam.com and Amazon.com.


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